A Reuters article yesterday proclaimed that BBC television naturalist and conservationist Chris Packham thinks that scientists are wasting their time on the conservation efforts devoted to giant pandas. Pandas have reached “an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” he says, and they’re destined to die out because of their own habits.
It’s true that pandas have a highly specialized lifestyle: they need to eat about 25 pounds per day of just one plant, bamboo, to survive, and their size and morphological adaptations make them restricted to their high-mountain habitats in China. Add that the fact that they are difficult to breed in captivity and you have a conservation nightmare.
Packham’s claim is one that has been bandied about by everyone from evolutionary biologists to bleeding-heart animal lovers. Has the panda, through unhappy chance, come to a stopping point in its success as a species? Unable to shift their diet or move to a new geographic area, are they destined to peter out of their own accord like so many other ancient mammals before them?
While scientists agree that fate has not been particularly kind to the pandas, molecular studies also show a tight correlation between the advent of human civilization and the beginning of panda decline. What’s more, pandas used to occupy lowland areas, but have been driven out by human activities. Even the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which destroyed nearly a quarter of panda habitat, was so devastating to pandas because of its interaction with developed areas. Even if history has been unkind to pandas, humans have been at least as unkind.
I welcome your thoughts. Is it our fault that pandas are a dying species? And whether or not we’re to blame, should we continue pouring money into their rescue?